CRAWFORD, Texas – Under cover of night as well as baseball caps, President Bush pulled off a Thanksgiving Day bait-and-switch that James Bond would have been proud of.
The president even stunned himself with the success of his trip to Iraq Thursday to visit troops for the holiday, saying if word of the dangerous mission had leaked out, he would have turned Air Force One (search) around and headed back to Crawford to spend the day with his family.
"I was fully prepared to turn this baby around, come home," Bush said late Thursday as he returned from his two hour visit to Baghdad airport, where he served dinner to the troops and personally delivered his Thanksgiving message of appreciation to the nation's servicemen and women.
But even Bush's twin daughters and parents, who all headed to the president's ranch for the holiday, were not informed in advance of the plan, and the overwhelming secrecy helped make the plan a success.
Feigning to be an "ordinary couple," Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) snuck away from the ranch and endured the street traffic to get to the airport where Air Force One was parked. In a departure from the usual perks of being president, the unmarked motorcade had to obey all the traffic rules, stopping at lights and following the speed limit. During those pauses, Bush said he and Rice pulled their baseball caps down low so people could not see their faces.
"We looked like a normal couple," Bush said of himself and Rice.
Not only a number of Secret Service (search) agents at the ranch, but the daily entourage that follows Bush, were left completely in the dark about the trip. A guard at the airbase said he didn't notice anything was amiss when Bush and Rice were escorted through the security gate before entering the belly of Air Force One, the entrance used by the pilots and mechanics who were said to be taking the plane back to Washington for service.
Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base (search) just outside Washington and was pulled into a huge hanger. Out of view, Bush then boarded an identical jumbo jet, used alternately with the other aircraft as Air Force One.
Reporters sworn to secrecy joined the trip at Andrews. They had their cell phones, pagers and other electronic devices taken away by security officials until the plane was headed toward Iraq.
Approaching the airport in Baghdad, now under U.S. military control, Air Force One extinguished its lights and maintained radio silence. Rice said even until the end, the trip had to be kept quiet to protect the president and the people traveling with them.
"It was, of course, not without some risk but it was a risk that was more than tolerable from the point of view of the Secret Service, from the point of view of those who are responsible for the security of the president, and the president would not have gone had he thought that it was going to be a undue risk to him or to those on the ground," Rice told Fox News.
In a mess hall on the ground in Iraq were 600 soldiers waiting impatiently for Thanksgiving dinner. L. Paul Bremer (search), the top U.S. civilian authority there, told the soldiers it was time to read a Thanksgiving message from the president, a task reserved for the most senior official present.
"Is there anybody back there more senior than us?" Bremer said, standing alongside Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (search), commander of coalition forces in Iraq.
With that, Bush stepped from behind the stage and sent the cheering crowd to its feet.
"I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere," he joked, fighting back tears at the enthusiastic reception.
Bush told the troops from the 1st Armored Division (search) and the 82nd Airborne (search), and other units that he had brought a message from home for them: "We thank you for your service. We're proud of you and America stands solidly behind you."
Bush said the terrorists and insurgents were testing America's resolve and "they hope we will run" from Iraq.
"We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost of casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," the president said.
The remarks brought the soldiers to their feet.
"It was a pleasant surprise," said Master Sgt. Michael Johnson of Turlock, Calif. "They had us waiting so long I started to get (mad). But it's not so often you get to meet a president."
Bush served mashed potatoes for 10 minutes and then met with four members of the Iraqi Governing Council (search), the mayor of Baghdad and U.S. military officials.
After his departure, Bush said he was "the biggest skeptic of all" about whether the trip could be pulled off. He questioned military commanders and Bremer, and even sat down with the pilot of Air Force One, Col. Mark Tillman, to go over details.
Behind the trip were weeks of top-secret planning, doubts and last minute questions. It began in mid-October when chief of staff Andy Card asked Bush whether he would be interested in going to Baghdad for the holiday.
"Yes, I would," Bush replied. "Except I don't want to go if it puts anyone in harm's way. I said it's very essential I understand all aspects of the trip, starting with whether or not we could get in and out safely."
If word leaked out of the trip, Air Force One could become a prized target for terrorists and Saddam Hussein loyalists.
Bush said he thought Americans would be understanding about the deception because it was important for soldiers at risk to know that the commander-in-chief and the country supported them and appreciated their sacrifices.
He told reporters that Americans understand that if the trip had been announced "it would have put me in harm's way. It would have put others in harm's way, including yourselves."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.